As the sport of pickleball has grown, so too has the creativity of pickleball players looking to formalize a club in their area. PicklePlex® of Punta Gorda, Inc., located on the campus of Florida Southwestern State College Charlotte Campus in Punta Gorda, Florida, was initially founded by a group of out-of-the-box thinkers whose tenacity led them to break ground at PicklePlex in October 2018, just a mere two years after discussions for a new, local pickleball club began.
When Nancy Prafke, a Punta Gorda resident, was serving on the city council in 2016, she was approached by a local group of pickleball players with legitimate complaints about the city’s lack of recreational pickleball courts. At the time, there were only eight dedicated pickleball courts in the county which consistently had over 100 people waiting to play. When the dedicated pickleball courts were unavailable, local pickleball players were forced to play on courts with taped lines and temporary nets. That is when this “small group of people said [they] need[ed] to find a space to play and have more courts,” says Prafke. Over the next several years, Prafke worked as a liaison between the city and this core group of players to fulfill their dream of having 16+ additional courts in the area.
After a long search for the right space for this new pickleball club, which they determined would need to be between 8-10 acres, the best the group was able to find was property that cost $5k/acre and still needed to be cleared, have a road built to it, and would require much more development to be hospitable for a pickleball club. Knowing the area well, Prafke was aware that the Charlotte Campus of Florida Southwestern State College had been overbuilt and already had ample parking space. Soon, Prafke facilitated a meeting between the pickleball players and the President of Florida Southwestern State College Charlotte Campus to pitch him the idea of having a pickleball club located on campus. Prafke used the obscure location of the Charlotte Campus, which is “beautiful…but off the beaten path,” to their advantage, arguing that having a pickleball club on campus would increase the visibility of the college and help put the campus on the map. Eventually, this plan was pitched to the President of Florida Southwestern State College and the Board of Trustees for approval, which was officially granted in September 2018.
A small core group of players along with Prafke, who has “background in helping make things happen,” were crucial in leading the journey to find a home for PicklePlex. In a relatively short amount of time, she was able to assemble a well-rounded group of people that wanted to make this happen and were equally determined to not give up, despite the many obstacles they encountered along the way, not the least of which was raising funds to establish the club.
Understandably, Florida Southwestern State College wanted the club to be fully funded prior to breaking ground. The club estimated they would need approximately $800k to build the initial 16 courts. The “fundraising began with trying to find people in the community who would be donors” and raising community awareness for the project. Because of the problem with the city park being overrun by pickleball players, there was a hefty amount of ill will in the community for pickleball in general and many residents did not want to be associated with pickleball. Even still, Prafke and her group of determined pickleball players generated substantial excitement about the project from the community and received many individual donors, with the largest single donation being $100k. Further, they held several tournaments as fundraisers for the new club. By late 2018, the group had enough cash for the Florida Southwestern State College Board of Trustees to agree to a short term lease for the use of their property for a new pickleball club and they opened for business in June 2019.
The initial lease with Florida Southwestern State College was a short term lease as the college wanted to see how things would transpire. However, they have since extended the initial lease to 30-years as PicklePlex has continued to establish itself as a successful pickleball club.
PicklePlex’s mutually beneficial partnership with Florida Southwestern State College allowed the original group of player’s goal of having more standalone pickleball courts in the area to be realized much quicker than if they had needed to develop their own property. Hosting the club on a college campus “[reduced] the barrier to entry because [they] didn’t have to build parking lots or clear land,” which would have been a significant financial obstacle, and “helped them get into business much [quicker]”. Additionally, PicklePlex benefits from having campus security available when needed. “From an educational standpoint, there is synergy” as the club provides a great opportunity for the school to host training and educational experiences for management and hospitality. Prafke stressed that it is important for them to “keep a really, really good relationship going with the college so as [they] come up with new ideas, [the college will be] receptive to [them].” Without the support of the college, it would have been a much longer road to opening the doors to PicklePlex and get where they are now.
PicklePlex initially began with 16 sanctioned courts with fences between each court, allowing the space to be hospitable for professional tournaments since the beginning. In October 2023, they added another eight courts to their facility. One of these courts, deemed the “Championship Court,” features a large apron all around the outside and stands by itself to make for a prime court for championship matches in tournaments. Currently, PicklePlex is working toward adding a clubhouse and covering several of their courts so players are more comfortable during the warm Florida summers. Moreover, they just hired their first employee, as the club was run by volunteers previously, and they are working on automating their membership processes. PicklePlex will officially be debt free at the end of 2023 as they have executed fiscal diligence through the early stages of opening their facility and have contributed toward just shy of $15M of economic impact in Charlotte County, Florida since they opened. This club will be exciting to watch over the next several years as their relentless and innovative leaders continue to increase the popularity of pickleball in Punta Gorda, Florida and the surrounding areas.
Nancy Prafke is currently on the PicklePlex Board of Directors and is responsible for their fundraising and government and community outreach.